PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The 39 Steps — Stitching Hitch Together

By Harry Haun
January 17, 2008

Flashlights streaked the cold, dark skies in front of the American Airlines Theatre Jan. 15, signaling the Broadway arrival of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps — in miniature on stage.

Less is moronically more in this ragtag theatrical retelling of Hitch's unwieldy 1935 spy romp. In there, too, is a salute to the indomitable spirit of actors deliriously determined to approximate the impossible. That conceit won an Olivier for Best New Comedy of 2007.

Patrick Barlow, who received this prize for adapting the play (from an equally demented original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon — and, lest you forget which is very easy to do since it tells an entirely different story, John Buchan's 1915 novel), gulped big-time to find his modest opus transplanted on the Main Stem. "No, I never envisioned Broadway," he said at the Marriott Marquis afterparty, shaking his head in bewilderment.

"It's very hard for us Brits. All the Americans like it. When you're in the West End and you have American tourists, they all love it — it's a different thing to them. It's like coming into a foreign territory and watching the natives. To come over here and do it — that's frightening." On new and shaky turf, the humor has been broadened for the Yanks, and he approves: "It's a much better theatre here — and a much bigger theatre so you have to fill it.

"It started off at a tiny theatre in North London called The Tricycle. Normally, I do huge epics on a shoestring budget — the Zulu War or the Charles and Diana story or Wagner's Ring Cycle, in a half-hour with two people — very serious topics, done on a small scale."

There have been three different sets of "The 39 Steps" on the screen. Robert Donat in 1935, Kenneth More in 1959, Robert Powell in 1978 — all had the same title, but the 39 steps were not always defined the same. Sometimes they were spies, sometimes actual steps.

According to Barlow, his play version recycles virtually verbatim "about half, basically" of the original screenplay written by Charles Bennett, Ian Hay and Mrs. Hitchcock, Alma Reville — although Playbill's title page doesn't acknowledge the considerable contribution.

The big, overriding difference between the two presentations is the absurdly ambitious lengths to which Barlow and his director, Maria Aitken, will go to match the mediums.

"We do exactly the same cut," director Aitken threw out for inspection, referring the film's classic piece of editing: On discovering Annabella Schmidt stabbed to death in the apartment of our hapless hero, Richard Hannay, his charwoman opens her mouth to scream, and the mouth suddenly turns into a railway tunnel as a train charges into it.

"When she starts to scream, it's the train whistle, and smoke belches out of the wings, and everybody runs about in the smoke. Annabella — the body — gets up and pushes her own chair off, and within seconds we're in the train with Hannay and the two salesmen."

Then she had to contend with the memory of Mr. Memory, the music-hall mentalist whose mind has the classified information that all the subversives are scampering after.

"There are these wonderful sideway shots in the movie where he appears to be leaning across the frame. We do that with the actual actor." Indeed, Cliff Saunders plays the part at a Pisa-like tilt, rocking side to side like some schmo on the beach. "I used to do it much bigger, and it got a bigger kind of laugh," the actor allowed. "That was the way we did it in Boston, but, when we came here, we tried to tap into the characters a little more. I like it now when people actually get a little choked up when Mr. Memory does his last scene."

In a cast of four, Saunders is listed first in the Playbill cast listing as "Man #1," followed by Arnie Burton in the role of "Man #2." In truth, these two comprise a menagerie of multi-tasking — a pair of perpetually whirling dervishes who keep the lunacy at full gallop.

"I've never counted," claimed Burton, "but supposedly there are 155 parts, so I'd say that I do 75 roles, something like that. That's including a bog, a river, a brook, all inanimate objects. I play four different characters in one scene, and then I have a scene with myself.

"It's so much fun — and I know everyone says that on opening nights — but it truly is. I love old movies so I get to do some old movie-acting and do it with three incredible people."

Still not counting, Burton figured that he has seen the Hitch flick "like, 20-something times. I watched it a lot for the auditions, and then, once we were in rehearsal, I would periodically watch it. And, y'know, I still put it on, just to look at a scene or something."

Burton got his acting chops in stock. For years, he was one of the gems at the Pearl Theatre Company, along with John Rando, who subsequently became the Tony-winning director of Urinetown. "I was just talking to John. He came to see the show the other night, and he said, 'We should go back and do something at the Pearl together.' So we may just do that, I dunno. He told me, 'Think of a play.'" Well . . . Scapino, anyone?

One thing he really doesn't count is his first outing on Broadway. "I took over in the last Amadeus," Burton said, "doing valets and small parts, and I understudied Mozart" (Michael Sheen). Like the whole cast, he considers The 39 Steps his first on Broadway.

With the Canadian-born Saunders, a Broadway debut was a conscious choice. "When I chose to do this, I'd been offered something else — a movie — and it was a very tough decision because I wanted to work with the director, but it was one of those things where I thought, 'Well, I've done movies and a lot of theatre, but I'd never done Broadway.' I think every actor has that curiosity. Not to put Broadway as a notch on a belt, but I gotta say, it's a lovely experience. New York has been very kind to me. I'm very glad I did it."

A brunette, Jennifer Ferrin, was asked by Aitken to fill the shoes of the first of the "Hitchcock blondes," the mesmerizing Madeleine Carroll. "I was shocked [Aitken] cast me," Ferrin admitted, "but I was grateful to get to work with her. She's so brilliant and caring."

For Charles Edwards, who originated the Hannay role in London, a Broadway debut is the light at the end of a very long tunnel. "It feels wonderful, primarily because I've been involved with this from the beginning. Somewhere in 2006, we started. It was a show before that, but Maria hired me when she started. She saw me do Hay Fever at the Haymarket with Judi Dench. For a while, I was rehearsing by day and acting at night."

Edwards logged up lots of 39 Steps himself in preparing for the Brit-twit who passed for hero in the generation before 007, but he was ever-mindful of The Aitken edict: Don't Do Donat. "More than watching him, I watched the whole genre of that kind of film acting," Edwards explained. "That's what I was trying to know. I didn't want to do a Robert Donat take-off per se. I wanted to try and take off on that era of film histrionics." He still counts himself a fan. "Hugely — 'Goodbye, Mr. Chips,' all that, even when I was a kid."

Director Aitken also had a prior appreciation of Donat. "His modernity is what I liked so much. You know how acting dates so quickly? Donat is giving a performance that would pass mustard now. His voice is a caress that sorta shades constantly into irony. He just does that so lightly. We, of course, have to take those qualities and make them bigger."

A sizable galaxy of stars in attendance on opening night was upstaged and outglittered by the director herself. She moved with effortless grace through the evening as if she hadn't a worry in the world, dressed in a handsome, Orientally designed mandarin jacket. One might suspect an homage to Donat — who wore a similar get-up in his final film, 1958's "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness" — but no: "It's not in the catalogue," she demurred. "I'm wearing my dead relative's jewelry, my grandmother's frock and a coat." It was nice way of saying she wanted to have her loved ones with her on her first big night on Broadway.

The loved one beside her most of the night, in vaguely rumpled tweed, was indeed a Writer — her husband. "When I was teaching drama at Yale," she recalled, "someone sent me comfort packages of novels. One week he sent me the entire works — which wasn't very much in those days — of Patrick McGrath. I rang my friend, who's a literary agent, and said, 'This guy's fantastic. Why have I not noticed him? He's obviously English.' And he said, ‘Well, he lives here. And would you like to meet him tonight because I'm having dinner with him?' So I leapt on the train, and I married him six weeks later."

McGrath, whose latest book, "Trauma," was just published by Random House, has had two novels turned into movies — "Spider" by David Cronenberg in 2002 with Ralph Fiennes, and "Asylum" by David MacKenzie in 2005 with Natasha Richardson.

Aitken backslid and took a role in "Asylum." Until she started directing full time a decade ago, she was one of the West End's best reviewed and best regarded character actresses, with a specialty in Noel Coward comedies. She recently directed his 1924 Easy Virtue in Chichester and will start rehearsing a West End revival of it in August that will star Natasha Richardson. (The movie version of Easy Virtue, it is ironic to note, was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927; a remake of it is in the works for Jennifer Biel.)

First-nighters included a raft of Tony winners: Bill Irwin, Audra McDonald (with her 110 in the Shade director, Lonny Price), lyricist Lisa Lampert (drowsily chaperoned by Bob Martin), directors-choreographers Kathleen Marshall and Tommy Tune (the latter was off with the patrol at dawn to The Windy City to see for the first time the Goodman Theatre which will launch its season in the fall with his Turn of the Century, written by "the boys" of Jersey Boys, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice), lyricist David Zippel (who just had his great song, "Another Mister Right Left," summarily nailed by Teri Ralston at The Metropolitan Room), Blythe Danner and, relatively fresh from Mauritius, Katie Finneran on the arm of Peter Coyote (who's narrating Ken Burns' new 12-hour documentary series on the national parks).

Others present: Malcolm Gets, dance legend Jacques d'Amboise, director Mark Wing-Davey (readying Brett C. Leonard's Unconditional for a LAByrinth launching at The Public), Alison Fraser (off to St. Martin's on Thursday for some quality R&R before beginning the LuPone Gypsy on Broadway), Craig Lucas, director Mark Brokaw, The Overwhelming author J.T. Rogers and set designer John Lee Beatty.

Caroline McCormick, waiting for hubby Byron Jennings to finish his prize-winning mustache-twirling in Is He Dead?, made intermission chit-chat with Old Acquaintance Margaret Colin and Broadway's first Mrs. Potts, Beth Fowler. The latter said that she was bound for Steel Magnolias at the Paper Mill Playhouse with Kelly Bishop and that she was spending this week workshopping a musical version of Please Don't Eat the Daisies, which is based more on the Jean Kerr book than the Doris Day movie; Kaitlin Hopkins and Gregg Edelman are playing Day and David Niven to her Spring Byington. Colin said her TV show, "Gossip Girl," has been picked up and will resume New York filming as soon as the writers strike is settled ("I play the evil Eleanor, one of the neglected moms," she trilled happily, and it sure sounds like License To Kill from here).

Playwright Stephen Karam and director Jason Moore were there, representing Speech and Debate, their sleeper hit in the bowels of the Laura Pels Theatre. Moore's Avenue Q is doing 85 percent capacity in its fifth year (!) and made a big step forward with his third project by shrewdly signing up Spamalot Tony nominee Christopher Sieber for a stretch in Shrek. Joel Vig, late of Hairspray and now of cabaret, said his sold-out show ten days ago at The Metropolitan Room is prompting a second Vig gig there. Film prof Dr. Richard Brown weighed in just in case an expert witness was needed for The 39 Steps. The expert really on the 39 Steps case was there: dialogue coach Stephen Gabis.

Simon Jones, whose recorded voice opens The 39 Steps with some plummy cautionary words about cellphones and such, was otherwise on vocal rest after a robust The Actors Company Theatre/TACT reading of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution over the weekend, but he'll be up and at 'em Jan. 21 for The Gingold Group's monthly reading of GBS at The Players Club. The next Shaw show will Geneva, with Carole Shelley and George S. Irving.

"I've been reading about you," Roundabout's Todd Haimes said in passing to Jones' wife, Nancy, referring to Michael Palin's "Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years." It seems she is the publicist who put that Monty crew on the map in America. Another keeping-up-with-the-Joneses tidbit: This was the day their 18-year-old, Tim, left the nest. He was immediately replaced with a 55-foot television screen, which may help . . .